Are Schools Safer Post-Columbine?

With two foiled school shootings in the past week, the question remains whether students are any safer than they were before the violence at Columbine High School that left 13 dead and 25 injured seven years ago.

Those who work with schools to prevent violence say they get high marks for increasing awareness and reporting threats, but they note that schools face budget and time cuts that could make further safeguarding difficult.

"The best news is that there has been a change since Columbine by adults working with kids to change the mind-set that reporting incidents is not snitching," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a school safety consulting firm. "It could be saving somebody's life, including their own. More and more students are coming forward," he said.

At the same time, Trump's organization has tracked 10 thwarted school violence plots since March 1 of this year, as well as 78 nonfatal school-related shootings, up from 52 during the entire 2004-05 school year and 68 in the 2003-04 school year.

"Even though we tend to see more incidents at this time of year, the spate of incidents since March 1 seems to be a lot," Trump said. "The good news is schools and law enforcement partner agencies are doing a better job at preventing these incidents. Any one of these incidents could have been the next Columbine if students hadn't reported [threats] and adults hadn't responded."

Two of those incidents include a middle school in North Pole, Alaska, where six students were arrested and nine others suspended Saturday for allegedly plotting to kill students and teachers with guns and knives. And another plot, in which five teens in Kansas were arrested for allegedly planning to shoot up their school on the Columbine anniversary, April 20, before details were discovered on the Web site

"The only thing that really scares me more than kids with a plot to cause harm to a school are adults who believe it couldn't happen here," he said. "Nobody wants to be alarmist ... but we've seen an uptick in school-associated violence over the past three years."

Little Money, Little Time

Jane Grady, assistant director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said violence prevention got a lot of attention from school administrators and program funding from federal, state and local governments following Columbine.

"When things happen, right after Columbine, there was a lot of money for schools," Grady said. "As we move further away ... even some foundations, their priorities shift. That's just the way it is. Other things float to the top."

Some of the funding for such programs comes from the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, which lost $100 million in congressional funding this year, said Bill Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary for the office.

The state grants program was deemed ineffective and funds were being distrubuted too thinly, with about 60 percent of school districts receiving less than $10,000, he said. The cut money was put into a competitive discretionary grant program. The president's budget calls for the entire $330 million program to be cut in 2007.

Trump said the funding issue isn't just about broad-based security systems placed in schools but "anything from two-way radios to staff training."

At the same time, Grady said, school administrators say schools are dedicating more time to meeting mandated testing standards, which cuts into time for programs such as violence prevention.

"There has been a lot of movement to trying to make schools safer. People are certainly aware of what's going on out there," Grady said, adding, "They're more concerned now with bringing up their test scores. That's where a lot of the focus seems to be right now."

Trump said his group's research supports that notion. "There's an enormous amount of pressure on school administrators to meet standards," he said. "It's not political, it's an administrative thing. Anything that's not direct instructional time is falling to the back burner."

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the nonprofit National School Safety Center, said one example of the shifting focus is that the federal government provided funding for more than 6,000 school safety resource officers with the expectation that state and local agencies would continue to pay for the program when the federal program ended.

"The reality is that funding goes away," Stephens said, adding, "Clearly, there's a function of what are the priorities at the school, but if you want to meet the test scores it's critically important to have a safe and welcoming environment."

An Increase in Aggression?

According to a 2002 study by the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, which identified 37 incidents involving 41 school attacks that had occurred between 1974 and 2000, most attackers display pre-attack behavior that can signal a potential for violence.

At that time, the study said, some 80 percent of school shooters spoke about their plans to other students, but their peers rarely told adults.

"They're not impulsive -- there's planning involved," Modzeleski said. There also was access to weapons and bullying was a factor in about two-thirds of the cases, according to the report.

"More and more these kids are communicating with each other via the Internet," he said, as was the case in Kansas. "I think that both schools did the right thing in also getting law enforcement involved right away."

It is difficult to fully tally school violence incidents because there is no federally mandated tracking, Trump said, but anecdotally, reports are increasing.

"Outside of the shootings, we're hearing consistently from the school administrators and schools across the country that aggressive behavior and school violence-related safety issues are on the upswing," he said. "Federal statistics tend to understate; public perception tends to overstate. The actual number exists somewhere in between -- we don't know where exactly."

In some communities, the violence can be attributed to gangs, he said, but there is another consistent factor: human complacency.

"I think that school officials are concerned about safety," he said. "I think it's just a matter of fighting obstacles -- funding, time, denial in their own school communities."

At the same time, Stephens said, schools have greatly improved their work with law enforcement and students to stop attacks before they occur.

"The real issue is more of a mind-set that's established on campus, a spirit and a message that threats will not be tolerated," he said. "They will be taken seriously. They will follow up on these, and there is a point where a threat goes from an idle manner to a criminal offense."

Modzeleski said much of what can be done to prevent violence doesn't require "big-ticket items."

"Monitoring your students, knowing who your students are," he said. "We think it's essential that kids are connected to an adult in a school ... because most of the kids we interviewed as part of our study felt there was nobody in school they could go to."